Women in Mezcal Production

The first drink of a mezcal glass usually evokes, for those who know a little about the subject, the agave landscape of a region in a state like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, etc. Some people also think about the palenque or factory where the boiled maguey was processed to ferment it in wooden barrels and later distill the must, but how many times do you think about the people who managed to obtain, from the maguey, the mezcal?

Women in Mezcal Production. Photo: CIATEJ
Women in Mezcal Production. Photo: CIATEJ

The process of making mezcal consists of a series of group activities and team collaboration, it is not individual and requires, on the part of the people, knowledge, practice, and patience for different moments. Once the maguey is coated, as it is called to the action of cutting the floral escape in its first months, until the pineapple is jimmied, it is baked, cut, fermented, and distilled at least twice, eight months pass in average. Eight months are added to the time it took for the maguey to reach an adequate state to be capped, which is at least 6 years (it can be up to 15 depending on the type of maguey).

The supervision of the whole process is carried out by a master or Mescalero teacher, that is, a person whose knowledge, will, leadership and actions give shape to the maguey distillate after having carried out or coordinated the process mentioned above. Some bottles in the market mention the mezcalera master who was behind the production of the batch; however, few mention the women and the team behind the whole process.

Women, whether they are master mezcal makers or not, have a highly relevant role in the mezcal-making process, thanks to their daily support work, as well as their knowledge of the processes associated with maguey and mezcal.

Women in Guerrero, for example, are the ones who provide the workers in the factories or taverns with food during the cutting, baking and distillation moments, during the four to six months that the maguey is worked on, which implies planning and preparing food for seven to ten more mouths.

Talking about food planning is not just about thinking about what you are going to cook, but about managing the resources to secure the ingredients for each meal: whether it is the agricultural space to grow and harvest corn and beans as staples, or managing the money to buy these and other components of the diet. Women also have a barely recognized role at times like the grinding of maguey, in emptying the must into the pots for distillation, and in monitoring the latter process, either by their own admission or when the master mezcalero (father or husband normally) must be absent or is indisposed for health reasons.

Information on women in mezcal production. Photo: CIATEJ
Information on women in mezcal production. Photo: CIATEJ

Women, according to several people, have a special touch to define the ideal moments to stop the fermentation and to watch that the fire of the distillation does not "snatch", that is to say, it is not too high and burns the drink depriving it of the different aromas and flavors that characterize it in different moments in the mouth.

When there are maguey nurseries in the homes, it is they who are responsible for ensuring that the seedlings reach a suitable stage to be moved to the place where they will be replanted to complete their life cycle, supporting this transplant. They make all this compatible with their role as mothers, wives, agricultural workers in the milpa or other subsistence crops, as well as workers in and for the home.

In Oaxaca - and in Guerrero, although less frequently - there are women who have taken on the full role of mezcalero teachers, either by choice and in an environment that is hostile to them because they have never recognized women's work, or because of the absence of other people in the family who want to or can work in the palenque or factory. In addition to completely supervising the process, paying workers for the heavy physical work, and collaborating with them, they continue with the other tasks traditionally played by women in a home: eating, washing clothes, raising children, and caring for the elderly.

Females in Mezcal Production. Photo: CIATEJ
Females in Mezcal Production. Photo: CIATEJ

Women have had these spaces for several years, yet in a little-recognized manner, as if the support work as part of a team were not relevant; however, in order to understand the importance of equity in a society that wishes to have a horizontal dialogue among sectors and people, it is time to make visible the activities each piece plays in achieving products that represent the culture of a country and its regions, before the world and back to the cultural groups that keep alive the production of these goods.

It is the public recognition, visibility, and appreciation of those who benefit from and enjoy a drink with as much cultural and symbolic content as mezcal, an action that increases and sometimes recovers women's self-esteem and claims and their multiple contributions to society. 

This is part of the objectives pursued by the National Problems project. 6590 "Environments for learning, training, and analysis for strengthening value chains based on work with female mezcal workers in Oaxaca and Guerrero", from which the information in this article arises.